JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri could soon learn whether it will have to repay millions of dollars to the federal government for mistakenly inflating its food stamp rolls throughout much of the past decade.
State officials acknowledged in December 2009 that a computer programming error led Missouri to over-report the number of food stamp participants to the federal government for six straight years. During that time, Missouri received more than $14 million in federal bonuses because of its high participation rates.
The error has taken government officials months to unravel and could have financial implications not only for Missouri but potentially for other states that otherwise could have been eligible for bonuses payments.
The Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects to wrap up its analysis and announce its determinations within weeks, Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the service, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Missouri is awaiting word both on whether it will have to pay back some of the bonus money and whether it could be penalized for having too high of an error rate. States can be assessed penalties if their error rates exceed 105 percent of the national average for two consecutive years.
Records obtained by The Associated Press under a state Sunshine Law request suggest that Missouri might not be penalized for its error.
In an January 2010 email, a finance official for the U.S. Department of Agriculture explained to state officials that although Missouri's error rate was 6.03 percent based off a sample of cases in the 2008 federal fiscal year, there was not enough statistical certainty that the sample actually exceeded the 5.26 percent error rate used as the threshold for triggering penalties.
Although Daniel said she was not familiar with the particular email obtained by the AP, she said it appeared to be only a preliminary calculation in what has been a long process.
From the start, state officials have said that a 2002 computer programming error did not result in any low-income residents wrongly receiving payments under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but merely affected the numbers reported to the federal government. It said the error generally occurred when one of several food stamp participants in a household left -- and thus no longer received benefits -- but still was counted on a computer-generated report as if he or she remained in the home.
Records obtained by the AP show Missouri submitted its revised participation numbers last July to the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. Those figures show that the computer error appeared to have a cumulative effect. What started out as an over-reporting of 237 participants in October 2002 grew to an exaggeration of 275,124 participants by December 2009. At that time, Missouri reported 1.16 million food stamp participants when the revised figures show it actually had 888,501 participants.
"Kudos to the state for recognizing there was indeed a problem and reporting it," Daniel said. "It's a long process when you have to go back in and pull all those samples and redo all this."
Seth Bundy, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Social Services, said Tuesday that the agency has not received any notification from federal officials about their impending decision. But Bundy said the department's staff worked quickly to re-program computers once the error was discovered to avoid similar problems in the future.
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